Directed By: Sam Taylor-Wood
Written By: Matt Greenhalgh
Produced By: Robert Bernstein, Kevin Loader, Douglas Rae
Cast: Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff, Thomas Sangster
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 98 minutes
Release Date: October 8, 2010
Review Date: October 22, 2010
As a culture obsessed with celebrity, we have the tendency to mythologize the rich and famous. When a celebrity’s personal life just isn’t dramatic or interesting enough, legends are ascribed to them to make them bigger than life. By the time the fifth bullet was fired from Mark David Chapman’s gun, John Lennon had gone from being a musical legend to a martyr of epic proportions. Instead of being remembered solely as a great songwriter and an important force in early rock and roll, he became an exemplar of the crusading musician espousing the need for peace on Earth — the messiah with a guitar. This is, of course, rampant hyperbole. Because the man left behind an impressive body of musical work and was cut down by a psychopath at a young age, he was transformed into something far bigger than himself. That Nowhere Boy seeks to humanize and demythologize Lennon is commendable. That it struggles to maintain a consistently interesting through-line is disappointing.
The film follows John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) in his teenage years as he forms The Quarrymen through to the moment when he leaves for Hamburg, Germany, on the first step to superstardom. Refreshingly, most of the story covered in this time concerns his relationship with his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), the woman who raised him, and his long-absent mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The film takes a too-leisurely approach to revealing how Julia’s abandonment of John and Mimi’s strict upbringing combined to create an intelligent, angry, sarcastically mean teenager. When John reconnects with Julia, he discovers a woman who is mentally unstable. At times, she is beyond happy to have John around, showering him with affection that occasionally borders on inappropriate and teaching him how to play his first instrument — a banjo, oddly enough. At other times, she is in the throes of despair, unable to face John or the world outside her house. All the while, Mimi tries to keep John’s emotions in check when it comes to Julia, fearing that he will just be hurt by her again.
The screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh portrays John as bright kid with a mean streak. He’s just as likely to shower Mimi and his friends with insults as love. But the emotional mess of his life, as shown here, make his actions understandable, if no less mean. With the exception of a few groan-worthy bits of dialogue that play upon his future fame (John: “Why couldn’t God make me Elvis?” Julia: “Because he was saving you to be John Lennon.”), the film is more interested in just getting to the bottom of John’s emotional problems and how he will reconcile things with Mimi and Julia. Unfortunately, that’s where things take a bad turn.
Early in the film, it becomes obvious that John needs Mimi far more than Julia needs John. The path to his realization of this is unnecessarily circuitous. As John, Mimi, and Julia constantly talk around the obvious conclusion that they all need to come to, the film becomes redundant. While all three have obvious motivations for why they behave the way they do, the drawn-out nature of the struggle eventually makes them all unpleasant to spend time with. John becomes a self-pitying bully, Mimi becomes cold and unapproachable, and Julia becomes pathetically childish. The otherwise good performances by Johnson, Thomas, and Duff are unable to keep the second act of the film from becoming almost unwatchable.
The only saving grace of this part of the film are the scenes of John forming The Quarrymen and meeting Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster). I was dreading these scenes, expecting them to be played without any subtlety, but I found them to be nicely laid-back. Much of this credit goes to Johnson and Sangster. They look very little like their real-life counterparts and that goes a long way to helping the audience believe that these are just two kids who like the same type of music and try to emulate that music in a band that’s not very good. Every decision they are shown making that will affect their future is based on a pragmatic concern (John reckons that it’s better to have Paul in his band than have him join up with another band, Paul recommends they start writing their own songs to avoid getting screwed by record labels), not some grand artistic statement that could have led to overblown foreshadowing of their tempestuous relationship as adults.
Nowhere Boy deserves points for trying to be a different type of biopic. But its inability to make the psychological struggle at its center compelling is a sin that is too hard to ignore. There is some worthwhile material here; it’s just too muddled and meandering to fully recommend.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.